The language of cinema hasn’t changed dramatically since the advent of sound. The general narrative structure was well worn at the end of the silent era. The films that challenge the basic tenets of the medium survive so well because mainstream cinema can never fully absorb their advances. L’Avventura remains a revolutionary film, it creates a whole new language for narrative structure the way Citizen Kane invented a new means of the technical aspects of production.
Antonini’s characters are generally competent and intelligent, successful if unfulfilled in life. They are presented with a challenge that immediately consumes them, but which they are ultimately unable to succeed against despite their privilege and gifts. Instead of rising to the rigors of their quests, they become deflated and end up looking decidedly mortal. This is a neat feat that no one other than Antonini seems to have mastered.
There are two mysteries at the heart of L’Avventura. The disappearance of Anna, daughter of a wealthy diplomat, on an island during a cruise with other monied elites; and Anna’s sullen, mercurial temperament when reunited with her fiance, Sandro, after his long absence. The disappearance is a red herring to lull the audience into tracing through a character study of Sandro.
By the morning after the disappearance, with police amassed to search the island and nearby boats, he corners Anna’s friend, Claudia, and kisses her passionately. It’s their first. In American cinema, wealthy, brash and attractive men rarely succeed in their conquests for pretty blondes, but in an Italian film things go a bit different. Claudia returns the affection.
Sandro and Claudia both operate under the assumption that Anna faked her death and made it to shore. A trail of gossip leads them deeper into an increasingly dilapidated and abandoned Italian countryside, while offering the opportunity to get closer together.
Through these travels we learn the full arc of Sandro. He’s a bully and brute, as a child he imagined he’d grow to be a poor genius, instead he wound up wealthy. It’s not a stretch to imagine this sort bowling his way to success in any business setting. The search for Anna brings out his better traits, but his true nature seeps through. In the film’s anti climax, Sandro stumbles on a drawing in progress, the pen and ink bottle left unattended by the artist. He smiles to himself and takes out a chain, swinging it like a pendulum and dropping down further with every swing until it collides with the ink bottle, spilling it over the paper. When the artist catches up with him, Sandro doesn’t back down and welcomes the fight knowing he won’t be challenged.
Like Fellini films of the same era, the sequences of L’Avventura often complement each other. In one, a young writer has paid fifty thousand lira to create a publicity scene where reporters treat her like a Hollywood starlet, later in the film Sandro leaves Claudia alone in a desolate town seemingly only populated with men who eye the attractive blond like filet mignon.
So what of the fate of Anna through this? Did she live? Antonini isn’t concerned. His camera fixates on the violent waves smashing into the sharp volcanic rock of the island. Anyone to fall into that wouldn’t live too long.
I don’t know if I’d call this Antonini’s best film, but its certainly his purest, and probably most essential. Relative to his later films, the plot is fairly strong and straightforward. At this point, his characters were free to go on their quests without much fear for their personal safety, although by “Blow Up” a true element of danger would seep in and by The Passenger the penalty increased to the point that the punishment was worse than physical death.
With its long running time, and languid pace, many Antonini films could pass as directionless, uninspired. To counteract that impression, he often fills the frame with painterly compositions and at least one technically masterful shot. In L’Avventura that occurs while Sandro smokes on a thin balcony. The camera follows him out in a brief but elaborate tracking shot, spinning away at the last moment to capture the entire plaza.